Air Force Reverses, Will Review Religious Freedom Policy (Video)
View the video from approximately 4:10.
How’d you like to be the cadet who posted Galatians 2:20? You are personally responsible for influencing religious liberty policy in the US Air Force. Nicely done.
A few weeks ago the US Air Force Academy made the news when a Bible verse was stripped from a USAFA cadet’s dry erase board. The incident led Congressmen to question the Air Force leadership about the incident when they appeared for a budget meeting. Secretary James and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh were initially defensive, citing AFI 1-1 as the justification for the command action against the cadet, though they did agree to provide a written explanation for the action. General Welsh famously expressed his “single biggest frustration” over what he called the untrue “perception [of] religious persecution” in the Air Force.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Secretary James seemed to have tweaked the Air Force reaction.
In response to a question from Senator Mike Lee (R-Ut), who again brought up the USAFA whiteboard, Secretary James seemed to say that while the intent of the policy is correct, they are “learning” it isn’t necessarily being applied in the most appropriate way:
When you read the policy on paper it seems to make good sense… But I think what we’re perhaps learning is that in practice…at the Academy or on the flightline, sometimes there are these gray areas, where situations are confusing…
In response to that issue, Secretary James announced an “offsite” where General Welsh and others will convene to re-evaluate the policy:
The Chief later this month is going to be gathering all of the chaplains from the major commands, as well as General Counsels, as well as the manpower and reserve affairs, and we’re all going to go offsite and we’re going to talk about this policy…
We’re going to put it up against the recent laws that have been passed, against the new DoD instruction, look at what the other services are doing, and try to see are there ways that we can clarify this policy because sometimes where the rubber meets the road its a little hard to know what to do.
Secretary James noted the need for “balance,” but seemed to emphasize the need for “dignity and respect” for religious belief — a balance she says the Air Force has had ‘difficulty’ implementing.
What we’re trying to do is hit that balance, so there is dignity and respect for all, for all religions, including those who have no religion. But its proving sometimes difficult in the field to implement, at least we have some examples of that.
Secretary James seemed to acknowledge the Air Force has “some examples” of issues with the religious policy in the Air Force.
Interestingly, this was a policy that appeared to have been created in the first place without such deep introspection and review. In essence, then-Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz copied the text from an old policy letter he wrote and created a heretofore unheard of Chief of Staff-level AFI. The focus of the memorandum — which flowed into the AFI — was on “religious neutrality,” not religious freedom. That tone seemed to be a significant point Senator Lee picked up on.
While the outcome of the Air Force offsite is by no means a foregone conclusion, it is notable the issue has enough attention to warrant specific, dedicated treatment. Even if the policy itself doesn’t change, perhaps the Air Force will consider how its implementation has been perceived and give further guidance or institute a ‘public relations campaign’ to correct the misperceptions.
For his part, Senator Lee did seem to think the policy needed to change. He made a point of highlighting the fact the Air Force policy in question, AFI 1-1 para 2.11 — at least the way it has been “interpreted to this point” — seemed to “run afoul” of the law, as written in the FY2014 NDAA. He noted the law seemed to “weight the scale far more heavily in favor of religious freedom,” whereas he drew the opposite conclusion from the Air Force policy.
In an interesting aside, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s organization has essentially claimed responsibility for getting those words on religion in the Air Force regulation. Weinstein has subsequently used that particular paragraph as a bludgeon to try to get the Air Force to stamp out religious expression — specifically, Christianity.
If you’ll recall, Mikey Weinstein claimed responsibility for having the cadet’s Bible verse taken down, and he used AFI 1-1 to justify that decision. As a direct result, the Air Force is now reviewing that very policy because of ‘difficulties’ with its implementation.
So, in a manner of speaking, Weinstein may actually be responsible for the increased protection of religious freedom in the US military — just not the way he intended. Instead, his attacks are the ones religious freedom will be protected against.
Update: The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty is “pleased” the Air Force is reviewing its religious freedom policies in light of recent events. The group has also requested to meet with the USAFA leadership, noting they have previously met with Michael “Mikey” Weinstein.